When your side conversation becomes a lesson in heroism, courage and everyday resilience
If I want examples of heroism, I don't have to look much farther than those around me at the gym. In so many cases, the people who are sweating it out have pretty interesting stories. Most of us, however, are too busy either ogling ourselves (for better or for worse), especially after a year in lockdown, or comparing ourselves to people we assume either are just plain lucky or have it better than we do.
How little we understand. To that, I will share what happened this morning around 6:35 am.
She was standing next to the cleaning station, which was a big trash can whose lid was repurposed, as were they all, for sprayers and towels. Planet Fitness (PF) has done an admirable job of turning all of its patrons into cleaning fiends; we are admonished to wipe down before and after. Uses a lotta paper but at least the place sparkles.
Lori, as I would discover was her name, was doing upper body with some fairly light dumbbells. Weight, of course, is relative; she's very slim. Standing at about 5'7", Lori weighs 125. She's 55. All of which I learned later. First, this is how we met.
When I see poor form, particularly poor form that can result in injury, I do my best to offer a thought or two to correct it. That can get my graying head bitten off. Or, as in the case with a few folks, we can end up having friendly conversations. Lori was the latter. Like so many of us who join a gym, Lori wasn't aware of what good form looked like. Most of us emulate others, who are as likely to be sloppy as anyone else. That of course is how we end up in the emergency room.
Lori was hyperextending her knees as she was working her arms and shoulders. I suggested that she bend her knees ever so slightly, which takes the pressure off her lower back, improves posture and causes her arms to do the work rather than put her lower back at risk. She told me later that this explained why her lower back was sore after a workout. She was lovely about it, as she is trying to build strength and was unhappy about the pain.
Look. I am neither an expert nor am I a fitness trainer. However, after 47 years of being a gym rat, investing in training with some of the best in the business and doing my due diligence to accommodate my changing body as I age, I know basic good form. Good form has ensured that I have never injured in the gym but for twice, and both were from poorly-trained Cross-fit instructors. I am supremely fortunate that good people were kind enough to explain the physics of those movements to early on, and that has kept me injury free but what I do to myself on travel.
Lori was grateful, and she went back to work. Just as I was wrapping up she walked back over with some questions about her body. She's not happy with her belly, she said. And the muffin tops on her sides.
I asked her why. That led to a long conversation during which I found out that Lori had been a hard partying, hard smoking/drinking kinda gal. At one point, she simply decided she was done.
She quit smoking and drinking, never looked back. She reported that it struck her how quickly her "friends" melted away. Friends who enable our worst health habits aren't friends. They're potentially lethal. When we choose a healthier life, and they go away, I have two words:
This really underscores how those closest to us can influence our habits.
Lori has also battled anorexia. She doesn't any longer. However, like me with my history of smoking and eating disorders, Lori has disordered body image messaging stamped into her DNA. I'm not sure that ever quite goes away. I pointed at where I feel chubby. She shook her head.
"No way," she said. Exactly.
I pointed out to her that I don't see her muffin top either. See what I mean? This is what disordered eating does. It twists how we see what we see in the mirror. Lori is a slim fit woman of 55, yet she worries about the belly that gave her a daughter.
After I heard her story, I rewound it and rolled it back.
Here is the perspective.
- Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness
- A study by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders reported that 5 – 10% of anorexics die within 10 years after contracting the disease; 18-20% of anorexics will be dead after 20 years and only 30 – 40% ever fully recover
- The mortality rate associated with anorexia nervosa is 12 times higher than the death rate of ALL causes of death for females 15 – 24 years old.
- 20% of people suffering from anorexia will prematurely die from complications related to their eating disorder, including suicide and heart problems
Lori and I are among the 30% who fully recovered. That in and of itself is an Olympic medal, I told her. Particularly because as we age, anorexia and eating disorders directly affect our bone health. She and I are both prime candidates for osteoporosis, being thin, white, past fifty and both of us survivors of eating disorders. Her being in the gym in the first place is one of the single best things she can do to address thinning bone. Olympic medal for effort, and intention for prevention.
Then there's this: Lori and I both quit heavy smoking habits. I was a five-pack-a-day habit, hers was two. To that:
Neither of us has ever smoked again. That also is an Olympic medal for self-care.
She also quit drinking. While I don't know if she was a bona fide alcoholic, relapse rates can be depressingly high.
Yet she quit for good. That also is an Olympic medal for self-care.
And, she also just dropped thirty pounds, which for anyone at ANY age is yet another accomplishment. I have kept 85 lbs off for half my life and I most certainly know that journey, as well as how hard it is to keep it off forever after. That too is an Olympic medal quality achievement.
Lori became vegan, and as she described her diet, she is the poster child for taking care of your body, fiber needs, energy and plant-based food. She also does her research, so that she can avoid this problem: Vitamin and mineral deficiencies, which can not only undermine health but actually cause early death.
From the article: if you're a strict vegan, you need:
B12, Vitamin D, Long chain omegas, Iodine, Iron, Calcium and Zinc.
While it's admirable to not want to eat anything with a face, you and I face serious health issues if we don't make sure we supplement what we aren't taking in through food. She's taking that into consideration. That isn't just smart. At the risk of repeating myself, that's Olympic quality self-care.
Last night I poured all my cream and milk into the garbage disposal. Not for moral reasons, albeit there are some arguments, but more because I've begun to notice that the more milk I eat, the worse I feel. That's feedback. Getting rid of it is self-care. I LOVE my cream. I will miss it. But I won't miss feeling crappy when I have it in my coffee. I will need to supplement more as a result.
I could go on. You see my point. As I listened to her berate her 55 year-old-body for its minor imperfections, I pointed out to her that perhaps -because I need to do this, too- it might be kinder to take stock of the considerable, brave and hard work she has already done to ensure better health and longer life. Steps that far too many of us simply don't bother to take. Steps that take commitment and work and dedication.
Besides, by the time you and I are in withing shouting distance of sixty, any body that doesn't show signs of wear and tear, including child birth or stretch marks or the divots of being in life is, to me, kinda proof of not having lived much at all. So it strikes me as a little unfair to no longer like our bodies when the inevitable happens. Say, gravity. Say, wrinkles. You get it.
Look, when I say things like this I am speaking to myself, which we all do. I forget to give myself credit not for only the great dignity of effort, but for those seemingly small but ultimately huge steps towards a better life that end up in, well, a better life.
Lori's choices and her commitments mean that as she ages, she has the option to ride the bike trails that wind endlessly through Eugene, hike the close- in trails and paths that connect Spencer Butte and Mt Pisgah and all the trails inbetween, and run with all the other thousands of serious athletes. She said she wants to start training for a marathon. At fifty-five.
Of course she can. Not only that, her decision to start running will in every single way help her bones get stronger, grow more dense and protect her aging body against osteoporosis. Again, Olympic medal for effort, should she get out and start pounding the pavement.
I'm doing precisely the same thing with a weighted vest. I have osteoporitic hips and this is the RX to get that under control.
I found so much in common with Lori, the roads we have traveled, the places where we tumbled off into the brambles, and how we have scrambled back on. These are the kinds of stories that bind us in a world which loves to divide and conquer.
One of the reasons I take the chance to approach people at the gym is because every so often you get a story like this: everyday people who have waged full-scale battles to beat back the demons. Many of us have won those battles, and these days only conduct the occasional skirmish to keep things under control.
Other brave souls have only just begun. They are no less brave, nor less worthy of our regard. For anyone willing to begin a journey of self care, which has nothing whatsoever to do with pricey potions, plastic surgery or pushing laxatives into our GI tracts, we have already agreed to fail. Miserably, regularly, and far more often than we care to admit.
So when I meet someone like Lori, or I see someone who carries at least one hundred extra pounds on their person into the gym area to get to work, all I can think of is good for you. There's so very much to celebrate here, rather than berate ourselves for not being perfect. The best part about PF is that they do work hard to create a safe space where anyone can begin their fitness journey without feeling harassed or shamed for not sporting a six-pack.
The journey to fit isn't the journey to slim. It's just a journey. Here in Eugene, that journey means that we can head out to Mt. Pisgah on a sweet spring morning, head up the grey gravel with confidence, and find ourselves a while later scanning the 360-degree view, taking in the Willamette Valley in all its early morning glory. We're known for our runners and cyclists and health enthusiasts. That may be a running joke, if you'll pardon the pun, but part of the reason I moved here was to be around such people. When Lori traded her hard partying buddies for the gym,
she chose life.
And that alone deserves an Olympic medal in my book.